Places: The Vagabond

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: La Vagabonde, 1911 (English translation, 1954)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: Early twentieth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Paris

*Paris. Vagabond, TheSections of the city that are seen most in The Vagabond include Renée’s apartment on the avenue du Ternes quarter, near the Arc de Triomphe; Montmartre, the legendary center of bohemianism and artistic activity; and the Bois de Boulogne and residential areas surrounding it. The Bois de Boulogne, a vast wooded area on the west side of Paris, is traditionally a place to which the wealthy and the bourgeoisie go to see and be seen.

Renée’s work as a dancer and mime in Parisian “café-concerts” where the mostly male audiences can smoke, drink, and enjoy the shows, is set mainly in the Empyrée-Clichy, on the southern border of the Montmartre area. In these theaters, Renée spends a good deal of time in her dressing rooms. She also finds a certain excitement in looking through theater curtains from the backstage to watch the audiences.

Occasionally, for relaxation, Renée and her friends frequent the cafés on the hill of Montmartre. But Renée does not really feel comfortable there because the neighborhood is too seedy and rough.

Dressing rooms

Dressing rooms. The rooms in which Renée prepares for her performances are important refuges that shelter her from the outside world and the people who pursue her. Her dressing rooms are surrounded by those of her colleagues, who form a comforting family for her. At her dressing tables, Renée makes up her face, creating the theatrical masks that offer another means of hiding and escape. However, her makeup work also requires her frequently to consider herself in mirrors, in which she finds the reflections of an aging, lonely woman frightening.

Renée’s Empyrée-Clichy dressing room is the scene of her first meeting with a very important character, Maxime “Max” Dufferein-Chautel, the wealthy man who invades Renée’s dressing room, her home, and her life in pursuit of her love.

Renée’s apartment

Renée’s apartment. Home of Renée located in the west-central part of Paris–between the theater in bohemian Montmartre, where she most often works, and the exclusive Bois de Boulogne area, where Max lives. This intermediate location represents the choices that Renée eventually faces, when she must choose between the freedom her career gives her and the tempting upper-class comfort offered by the adoring but domineering Max.

Renée is generally happier at the theater than in her apartment, but the apartment provides her with a refuge in which she can hide from responsibility. There, she is usually alone. However, there she also contemplates herself in mirrors, wondering exactly who she is. Her attitude toward her solitude is ambivalent–sometimes she feels lonely, but at other moments she savors the freedom that comes with being alone.

A focal point of Renée’s apartment is the salon in which she receives visitors, including Max who besieges her. This room contains a divan, on which Renée physically and emotionally resists Max’s pursuit until–roughly midway through the novel–he finally conquers her. Renée succumbs because Max succeeds in exciting her sexually, to her surprise, joy, and eventual dismay. This seduction and Renée’s subsequent sensual rebirth (her name means “reborn” in French) comes to constitute the center of her struggle between commitment to Max and her freedom.

*Provincial France

*Provincial France. In the last third of the novel, Renée leaves both Paris and Max to tour the country with two acting friends. Her tour is circular: from Paris to the east, then to the south, the west, and back to Paris (and Max). She misses Max, but in the city of Avignon, in southeastern France, she experiences a revelation of sorts. At Avignon’s railway station, she happens to buy beautiful roses, and an aesthetic epiphany sets her head to spin. This little crisis culminates in Nîmes, south of Avignon, where she strolls through a garden ecstatically absorbing the flowers, the warm air, and the beauty of an approaching storm. There, Renée comes to understand that such an experience is God-given–and given only to vagabonds and the solitary. Real joy, real freedom, and genuine identity are found, she sees, in rootlessness and wandering–no matter where, no matter what. Renée now begins to consider how to break off with Max, having chosen freedom and thus refused the confinement of marriage to Max.

BibliographyCottrell, Robert D. Colette. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1974. Discusses and evaluates The Vagabond with emphasis on themes of freedom and sexuality. Important starting place for the reader of Colette’s works.Phelps, Robert, ed. Earthly Paradise. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966. Delves into the myths created by Colette in her life and in her works. Chapters on her early marriage and her music-hall years, which were the basis for The Vagabond.Sarde, Michele. Colette: A Biography. New York: William Morrow, 1980. Quotations from The Vagabond illuminate Colette’s life. Reflects on the major themes of that fictional work. Bibliography.Stewart, Joan Hinde. Colette. Boston: Twayne, 1983. Places The Vagabond in the context of Colette’s career as a major writer. A good starting place.Ward, Nicole Jouve. Colette. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. Analyzes structures, tropes, themes, and characters in Colette’s work and has illuminating sections on The Vagabond.
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